Better cars: What's good for Toyota is good for America

April 26, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Columnist

The news that Toyota surpassed GM the other day to become the world's largest auto manufacturer will surprise exactly no one who's bought an American clunker in the past 25 years, a huge segment of the population that, unfortunately, includes me.

Oh, I could tell you horror stories about the transmission that locked up on my old Chevy Camaro.

Or the tailpipe assembly that dropped off our old Plymouth Reliant when my wife was driving with her mom on I-95. (Her mom thought the engine had dropped out. Ha! That would have been cheaper to fix.)

Or the enormous repair bills on our old Ford Taurus wagon, which allowed my mechanics, the Fabulous Kleim Brothers up in Cockeysville, to take expensive South Sea vacations and buy yachts the size of the Queen Mary and move into grand gated communities.

Yep, I could tell you stories about my American-made cars that would curl your hair - and I'll tell you one in a minute.

But I know you have your own horror stories.

And this, of course, is the larger issue behind Toyota finally surpassing GM in overall car sales.

Let's face it. Lots of U.S. consumers have been shying away from American-made cars and buying Japanese-made cars for years.

The reasons were simple: The Japanese made better cars.

They made more reliable cars.

They made cars that got better gas mileage.

And they sold these cars, at least initially, at reasonable prices.

So over the years, U.S. car buyers would compare these cars to the expensive gas-guzzlers from Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler that were always breaking down on them, and they'd say to themselves: What am I, stupid?

Why am I driving this piece of junk when I could buy something from Toyota, Honda or Nissan that offers better quality?

Sure, there were always people - mainly flacks for the Big Three automakers in Detroit, as well as U.S. auto workers and their families - who'd play the patriotism card and urge consumers to "Buy American -- it's good for the whole country."

But how patriotic are you going to be when that lemon from GM or Ford or Chrysler is costing you a bundle in repair bills?

Hey, you can still salute the flag even if your car's not in the repair shop.

So by the mid-'80s, Detroit was taking it on the chin from these upstart Japanese automakers. And the trend continues to this day with Toyota's ascendency to No. 1.

Looking back, I try not to take personally the enormous mental anguish caused by my old Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Reliant and '96 Ford Taurus wagon, which remains the single worst car ever made.

Do you have a minute?

OK, let me tell you a story about the Taurus wagon that happens to be absolutely true.

A few months after we bought that beast, we pulled into a gas station, bought $20 worth of regular unleaded and noticed the gas gauge wasn't working.

No big deal, right? After all, the car was still under warranty.

So my wife took it back to the dealership and explained the problem.

This is where things began to go downhill.

Because the guy at the dealership didn't say: "No sweat, we'll take care of it."

Instead he said: "Hmmm, never had a customer with a gas gauge problem before."

Apparently, they never hired anyone who could fix gas gauges, either.

Because a week or so after they claimed to have fixed it, it wasn't working again. And it never worked right for the rest of the Taurus' long, miserable life.

For years and years, we never knew exactly how much gas there was in the stupid car.

We were always freaking out about gas.

We'd put $20 worth in the car, drive it for a day or so and think: OK, how far did we drive? Does the thing need more gas?

We were putting gas in it every other day out of sheer paranoia. Hell, it probably had a full tank of gas the day we junked it. Who would know?

Anyway, that was our last American car. And I don't say that proudly.

But we bought a Mazda MPV and Honda CR-V in the years since, and the Fabulous Kleim Brothers see us less and less, which is the way it should be.

They're great guys and all. But you see my point.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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